Overture: Cyrano de Bergerac
Johan Wagenaar 1862 – 1941
Wagenaar was a Dutch composer and organist. His father, Gerard van Hengst was an
aristocrat, whilst his mother, Johanna Wagenaar was of more humble origins. For this
reason his parents were not married and he received his mother’s name as his family
name. He began to have formal musical education at the age of 13, receiving lessons in
piano, organ, violin, theory and composition from Richard Hol whom he succeeded as
organist of Utrecht Cathedral in 1888. He continued his composition studies by taking
lessons in counterpoint with Heinrich von Herzogenberg, and then became a teacher at
the Utrecht School of Music in 1896, eventually becoming its Director in 1904.
Wagenaar’s music is staunchly Romantic in style, little troubled by Wagner’s
chromaticism and any other 20th century developments …
Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Opus 56a
Johannes Brahms 1833 – 1897
Several major works by Brahms were initially composed for two pianos; but unlike the
Piano Concerto No 1 and the Piano Quintet, the Variations on a theme of Haydn remain
popular in their two-piano form as well as in the orchestral arrangement. Comparisons
between the two versions are intriguing and reveal Brahms’ mastery as an orchestrator.
He took his theme from a manuscript which he acquired shortly after settling in Vienna
in 1863, from one of a group of six Feldpartien (Divertimenti) then thought to be by
Haydn, but now thought more likely to be by Pleyel. Ten years later, he took this theme,
an Austrian pilgrim song entitled the St Antoni Chorale, making it the basis for a set of
eight variations plus a substantial finale. The orchestral version was first performed on
1st November, 1873.
For his presentation of the chorale theme (Andante), Brahms uses repeats and omits
the upper strings to allow the wind instruments to capture the qualities of the original …
Piano Concerto No 2 in F, Opus 102
Dmitri Shostakovich 1906 – 1975
Throughout the ages composers have taken inspiration from the performances of
great artists. Shostakovich, for example, wrote his two cello concertos for Mstislav
Rostropovich and his two violin concertos for David Oistrakh, while his two piano
concertos were first performed, respectively, by himself and his son.
The Piano Concerto No 2 was composed more than twenty years after its predecessor.
It was completed in 1956, and Maxim Shostakovich (now an eminent conductor) gave
the first performance on the occasion of his 19th birthday, 10th May 1957. The music
is spontaneous and infectious in character, a relaxation from the larger and darker
preoccupations of contemporary compositions such as the Symphony No 11 (The Year
1905) and the String Quartet No 6.
The first movement abounds in lively and attractive ideas …
Symphony No 4, Opus 71
Sir Malcolm Arnold 1929 – 2006
‘Tonight it’s bongo night’ ran the heading in the Daily Mail on 2nd November 1960,
announcing the premiere of Malcolm Arnold’s Fourth Symphony. It might easily have read
‘West Indian Carnival Night’, but such facile references to the novel use of percussion
in this new symphony merely deflect attention from the symphonic nature of the music.
The critics, whilst admiring Arnold’s customary skill in orchestration and his fecundity
for attractive, atmospheric, thematic material, tended to dismiss the symphony as a
failure. Much of the criticism was linked to the fact that Arnold was such a prodigious and
successful composer of film music and thus, ipso facto, incapable of producing anything
of real symphonic substance. Some writers even went so far as to accuse him of lacking
in good taste, as if the ability to write exuberant and joyful sounds precluded tackling
anything as serious as a symphony.
This negative initial reaction seems to have cast a permanent slur on the piece – but
I must say I enjoyed the premiere immensely …